(by Jason Adkins)
February 28, 2013
When Pope Benedict XVI announced he was abdicating the papacy, the speculation immediately began about the qualifications of the next pope. Many, of course, have strong opinions.
Whatever one thinks or hopes for in a new pontiff, it will be a blessing if the next pope is able to skillfully apply the perennial wisdom of the Catholic faith to the deepest challenges of our time, just as Pope Benedict XVI has done and for which he will long be remembered with gratitude.
One particular collection of the Holy Father’s teachings stands out in this regard, namely, the eight messages he composed for the World Day of Peace, which is observed annually on Jan. 1.
Guided by justice, truth
It is no surprise that Pope Benedict would have taken great care with his own hand to craft these messages. As he notes in his very first message for the 39th World Day of Peace in 2006, he chose the name Benedict in honor of St. Benedict, who laid the groundwork for a civilization of peace, and for Pope Benedict XV, who pleaded for peace during the endless slaughter of World War I.
This pope was deeply committed to peace.
But it was not “peace” in the bumper sticker sense, or understood simply as the absence of conflict, or in the “naïve optimism” of people who ignore the ever-present reality of sin in human affairs.
Instead, peace for Pope Benedict XVI is, in the words of his teacher St. Augustine, the “tranquility of order.” Peace is “the fruit of an order which has been planted in human society by its divine Founder, an order which must be brought about by humanity in its thirst for ever more perfect justice” (“In Truth, Peace,” Jan. 1, 2006, paragraph 3).
In other words, peace finds its source in rightly ordered relationships — that is, those that are “just” — among them, the relationship between God and man, the relationship between men themselves and society, the relationship of nations, and the relationship of humanity to the created order.
In this sense, we can properly understand the oft-quoted statement of Pope Paul VI, echoed by Pope Benedict XVI, that if you want peace, you must work for justice.
Recourse to a standard of justice, and the acknowledgement of the presence of injustice, first depend, however, on the recognition that there are objective truths and principles that should guide human affairs, and that some things and acts are good and some are bad.
So in his first Peace Day message, the Holy Father ambitiously reminded all of humanity that acknowledgement of the truth leads us on a path to peace.
In subsequent messages, he called our attention to certain truths that have been questioned, undermined, or outright attacked in the world of culture and politics, particularly the dignity of the human person, the recognition of which is at the “heart of peace.”
The dignity of the human person is protected through observance of the natural law.
Therefore, according to Pope Benedict, “the natural law should not be viewed as externally imposed decrees, as restraints upon human freedom. Rather, they should be welcomed as a call to carry out faithfully the universal divine plan inscribed in the nature of human beings. Guided by these norms, all peoples — within their respective cultures — can draw near to the greatest mystery, which is the mystery of God. Today too, recognition and respect for natural law represents the foundation for a dialogue between the followers of the different religions and between believers and non-believers. As a great point of convergence, this is also a fundamental presupposition for authentic peace” (“The Human Person, The Heart of Peace,” Jan. 1, 2007, paragraph 3).
Certain principles follow from the natural law. The dignity of the human person is secured by: protecting the family, “a community of peace”; ensuring religious liberty, “the path to peace”; and combating poverty, which “builds peace.” Each of these was the theme of its own Peace Day message.
To be sure, important geopolitical matters were also a focus of these Peace Day messages. Pope Benedict XVI placed special emphasis on the “ecology of peace” — the proper relationship between humanity and the created order. An ecology of peace depends on the recognition of the interdependence of the “natural ecology” and the “human ecology.” According to the Holy Father, “experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa” (“The Human Person,” paragraph 8).
Other themes included: the potential for injustice and armed conflict due to the global competition for scarce natural resources; the importance of international humanitarian law; a reminder that just war criteria must be applied in armed conflict, and that there was a need for its continued development and re-evaluation in light of the presence of ever more destructive and sophisticated weapons; recognition of the rights of workers and the need for policies that foster universal employment; the need for ethical structures to govern currency and financial markets; and the conflicts caused by the growing gap between rich and poor.
Taken together, Pope Benedict XVI’s World Day of Peace messages read like little primers on the Church’s social teaching. They offer a blueprint for promoting peace in our time by addressing some of the key challenges that undermine the “tranquility of order” — the just ordering of many different relationships.
Personally, I think we can make few better acts of thanksgiving for Pope Benedict XVI and his pontificate than to study these important messages and re-commit ourselves to becoming people of peace.